The Colors of Learning

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I have a brother who is three years younger than I am. He has always been a curious soul who as a toddler got into trouble exploring ant beds and told people that he was going to be a mathematician when he grew up. He was generally easy going and uninterested in the dynamics of sibling rivalries. He operated with a rational way of thinking almost from the moment he was born, rarely exhibiting highly emotional outbursts, so it was a bit disconcerting to our mother when teachers at his school worried that he might be depressed. Of course by then my father would have been dead for a couple of years, so Mama felt certain that if he had been truly sad he would have shown signs of his distress earlier. Nonetheless she agreed to a meeting with one of the teachers and the principal of the school to determine if my brother was in need of counseling.

The evidence that concerned the group turned out to be a series of coloring projects that my brother had completed by quickly scribbling over the images with a black crayon. When the educators showed my mother the sub par art works she was at a loss to explain why her son had chosen to color all of them in shades of black. She suggested that it might be useful to call my brother to the meeting to ask him what his intentions had been. 

A few minutes later my unsuspecting brother arrived with an innocent but wondering look on his face. The teacher laid out the bleak looking papers and gently asked him why he had chosen to scribble over the images with a black crayon. As though he suddenly understood why he was there, he smiled brightly and said, “Because I don’t like to color, so I get it over with as fast as I can.” Not quite satisfied with that response the teacher pushed for more information. “Why do you always use a black crayon?” she inquired. Again my brother spoke with confidence, “Why not? I use whatever color color happens to be around.” 

The confused teacher gently pushed my brother for more information and asked him if he was feeling sad. He thought for a moment and said that he only felt unhappy when he was forced to color. Not to be outdone by a little boy, the woman then wanted to know what kind of things made him happy. His answer was swift, “I like doing math and science and looking at my book about going to the moon.” he beamed with a genuine grin stretching across his face.

My mother was hardly able to stifle the laugh that was threatening to escape from her mouth. Instead she stayed calm while the teacher instructed my brother to go back to the gym where he had been enjoying a P.E. class. She admitted that she was rather surprised to hear that he did not like art time but got a kick out math. She explained that most of the students would do art all day if given the chance, but they usually groaned when she told them it was time for arithmetic. My mother, noticing that the teacher was stammering, quickly thanked her for caring enough about my brother’s well-being to make sure that he was doing alright and then excused herself so that she could rush to her car and chuckle until her sides hurt. That story became a staple in the compendium of our family yore.

My brother went on to graduate number one in his high school class, earn two degrees from Rice University and work as a contractor at NASA ultimately designing the navigational system for the International Space Station. He is also a lifelong optimist who has led a very happy and contented life. I suppose that his coloring fiascos were little more than commentary on the reality that coloring between the lines was not creative or challenging enough for him. 

There’s been talk lately from non-educators that teachers should just stick to facts and right or wrong answers rather than including socio-emotional activities like encouraging student to help each other or finding out how children feel when completing different activities. To eliminate what some call “touchy feely” aspects of learning would miss the point of creating an environment that meets the needs of each individual student. My brother’s teacher learned how to devise projects for him that were more aligned to his interests like creating a diagram of a spaceship or writing about a formula for creating different colors. Additionally, she became assured that he was not suffering from depression resulting from the death of our father. She enlivened his learning experience and opened new pathways for him by discovering what animated him. 

As a mathematics teacher I found students every single year who either needed more challenging work to prevent boredom or who were terrified of even the most simple mathematical processes. It was important for me to know who was who and what each of their needs and interests were. I learned to craft lessons that appealed to different personalities and kept the level of excitement and enjoyment of learning much higher than if I had not taken the time to get to know my students and to understand their hopes and dreams and even fears. 

We each view the world through lenses of our own creation. Some see black and white and just the facts. Others imagine a spectrum of hues rivaling a rainbow. If we teachers don’t bother to learn these things our classrooms become dreary and even frightening. Acknowledging the role that our emotions play in the learning process is crucial to helping each student to be genuinely engaged in the sometimes difficult processes. It’s never just about the facts or the right answers. We have to understand the colors of learning for the process to begin.